Big Country – the Band
Created Aug 14, 2002
I’m not expecting to grow flowers in the desert
But I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime
In a big country dreams stay with you
Like a lover’s voice ‘cross the mountainside
‘In a Big Country’
In 1981, Scottish punk band The Skids were in the process of splitting up. Their rhythm section had left the previous year, soon after the band’s biggest hit – ‘Into the Valley’ – and now their guitarist wanted out. The guitarist in question, a young singer/songwriter called Stuart Adamson, immediately started looking for members for a new band. He teamed up with an old friend – guitarist Bruce Watson – and recruited Rick Buckler, drummer with The Jam, to record some demos.
After being passed over by a number of record companies, Stuart and Bruce teamed up with Clive Parker and brothers Pete and Alan Wishart to form the first Big Country line-up. They opened for Alice Cooper on the first night of his UK tour, but were asked to leave after the second night. Stuart and Bruce promptly abandoned the rest of the band and hired two session musicians – Tony Butler (bass) and Mark Brzezicki (drums) – for their next demo recording.
On the strength of these demos, and with Butler and Brzezicki as full band members, the band played gigs in London and New York before recording their first single – ‘Harvest Home’ – which reached number 91 on the UK charts. After a tour of Scottish clubs in 1982, the band opened for The Jam for six nights at Wembley Arena. Early the following year, the band had their first top-ten hit with ‘Fields of Fire’ and supported U2 at the Hammersmith Palais in London. The definitive version of Big Country had arrived.
This time we run, this time we hide
This time we draw on all the fire we have inside
- ‘Look Away’
The band’s first album, The Crossing, was also critically and commercially their most successful. It entered the UK charts at number 4 and peaked at number 3, achieving platinum sales (sales of one million copies). On the other side of the Atlantic, The Crossing went gold in the USA and double-platinum in Canada.
As well as ‘Harvest Home’ and ‘Fields of Fire’, The Crossing also included two other hit singles: ‘Chance’ – a sombre yet anthemic song about a mother who is abandoned by her husband – and ‘In a Big Country’ – the band’s ‘signature tune’, although not their biggest-selling single.
The band continued to tour and record, scoring UK top-ten hits with ‘Wonderland’ (number 8) and their biggest hit, ‘Look Away’, which made it to number 7. Their albums during this period were also highly successful – 1984′s Steeltown reaching number 1 and The Seer making number 2 the following year, both albums achieving gold status.
In addition to their chart success, the band continued to be highly regarded by other musicians, both as live performers and as individual musicians. Tony played bass on ‘The Pretenders’ number 5 hit ‘Back on the Chain Gang’, while Roger Daltrey1 asked Tony and Mark to work on his solo album Under A Raging Moon and the accompanying tour. Big Country also opened for Daltrey when he performed at Madison Square Garden, New York.
Big Country continued to tour, both in their own right, headlining music festivals across Europe, and as guests of other performers. They were part of the ‘supergroup’ finalé of ‘Live Aid‘, performed at Wembley Stadium with Elton John, and appeared in front of 200,000 people at Knebworth as guests of Queen. The band were also special guests of David Bowieon his 1987 ‘Glass Spider’ tour.
Somehow, in the midst of all their live performances and studio recording, Stuart and the band also found the time to write and record the music for the 1985 film Restless Natives, which tells the story of two young Scottish men who become local heroes and tourist attractions when they start a campaign of non-violent hold-ups of tour buses.
Late 1980s-Early 1990s
Thirteen valleys lie in silence in the haze
Filled with promises and spirits that we raise
But the spirits all are ghosts of the ones we hurt the most
And they wander thirteen valleys crying out…
- ‘Broken Heart (Thirteen Valleys)’
Big Country’s fourth album, Peace In Our Time, represented a slight change of direction for the band. They went to Los Angeles, USA for the recording, and the result is more highly ‘produced’ than their more raw-sounding earlier albums. Peace In Our Time also started a move away from purely guitar-based music, with the introduction of keyboards and synthesisers into the band’s sound. This led to the first major disagreements within the band, but they managed to stay together.
In keeping with the ‘peace in our time’ theme, Big Country’s next move was to play a series of concerts behind the ‘iron curtain’2. The first was in July 1988 at the Peace Festival in East Berlin, which they co-headlined with Bryan Adams. The next month, they played in front of 200,000 people at the Soviet Peace Festival in Tallin, Estonia, after which the band were invited to a reception at the Soviet embassy in London. Following their set, broadcast live onBBC Radio 1 and even making the television news that night, they announced their plan to tour the USSR. Their ground-breaking performance in Moscow was the first in the USSR to be promoted by a private individual rather than by the State. They also shot part of the video to the single ‘Peace in Our Time’ in Moscow, with the rest being shot, appropriately, in Washington, DC.
Then, after a tour of the UK and Europe in 1989, Mark announced that he was leaving the band to concentrate on his career as a session musician. Recruiting Pat Ahern as a replacement, the band continued to tour and perform benefit concerts throughout 1989 and 1990. Mark rejoined the band briefly, although strictly as a session drummer, for their fifth studio album, No Place Like Home. To coincide with the release of the album in September, 1991, the band, with new drummer Chris Bell, played a short set at Tower Records in Glasgow. The crowd that turned up to see that band was, however, far bigger than anyone expected, or could handle. After people started spilling out onto the streets, the police insisted that the set be cut short.
At the end of 1991, the band finally split from their original record label, Phonogram, to whom they had been signed for almost 10 years. After three months, the band finally signed a contract with Chrysalis and set about recording their sixth album, 1992′s The Buffalo Skinners. This album, a move away from the highly-produced sound of their last two albums and a return to the band’s rockier style, regained some lost ground, becoming their first album since The Seer to produce two top-thirty singles (‘Alone’ and ‘Ships’). The album also received positive reviews, particularly from US music journalists, which eventually led to the album being released in the USA in September 1993.
I was the first across the water, last upon the land
I walked out of the silver mine, my pockets full of sand
After the return of Mark to full band-member status early in 1993, the band continued to tour in Europe, the USA and Canada. Although they had perhaps slipped from the view of the general record-buying public by this time, they continued to be in demand with other musicians. They appeared as guests with Meatloaf, and with ex-Led Zeppelin members Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. In 1995, the band were asked to join the Rolling Stones on their European tour, playing at 80- and 90,000-seat venues.
In 1995, the band parted company with Chrysalis records and signed to Castle, releasing their seventh studio album, Why The Long Face. After an initial positive reaction, the record company failed to actively promote the album and it was something of a commercial failure.
After a fortuitous accident at a concert in Detroit, Michigan, during which the power failed and the band were forced to play acoustically, they developed a taste for acoustic performance. In 1996, the band recorded a live album, Eclectic, which featured acoustic versions of Big Country hits, as well as covers of the Beatles‘ ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and the Rolling Stones’ ‘Ruby Tuesday’, and included guest performances from, amongst others, Steve Harley and Kym Mazelle.
The 1990s were also a time when the band was politically active, most notably with regard to environmental and nuclear issues – the band released the single of ‘Post Nuclear Talking Blues’ in aid of Greenpeace. Stuart also had links with CND, and presented a Scottish anti-nuclear petition to the French Consul and also participated in anti-nuclear projects at Twentieth Century Fox and the New Zealand Embassy.
Late 1990s-16 December, 2001
I took my past out for a ride along the North Sea
All my demons in the back seat crying out for me
Time to pay the piper, time to call in a marker, time to cough it up
Last thing on my mind was another shot at love
- ‘Too Many Ghosts’ – The Raphaels
1997 was a ‘year off’ for the band, with Stuart moving to Nashville, Tennessee after the break-up of his marriage. Despite this, the band played with Ray Davies and The Kinks at theGlastonbury festival that year, and by December had started producing demo tracks for a forthcoming album. The finish and release of this album would have to wait for some time. Meanwhile, the band had resumed touring in May, 1998, and later that year were again invited to join the Rolling Stones on their European tour.
The band continued to be busy throughout 1999, touring and recording on both sides of the Atlantic. The band also continued to be active politically, headlining the ‘Scotland for Kosovo’ concert in May, which led to them being invited to the capital of Kosovo, Pristina, for a concert organised by actress Vanessa Redgrave. This coincided with the release of the band’s eighth, and final studio album, Driving to Damascus. Everything seemed to be going well for the band, with concerts and television appearances lined up. Then, in November, 1999, Stuart went missing for two weeks.
He eventually turned up in New Orleans, Louisiana, stating that he had become disillusioned with the music industry. He eventually returned to performing and recording, forming a new band, The Raphaels, with American singer-songwriter Marcus Hummon. At the same time, Big Country embarked on their farewell tour, ‘The Final Fling’, in May, 2000, finishing at Glasgow Barrowlands. This was not, however, the band’s final show – that happened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in October, 2000, in a show that also included Jethro Tull, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and several local bands.
And that was that for Big Country. Stuart recorded an album with The Raphaels -Supernatural - and the other members of the band went about working on their solo projects. It seemed that the story would quietly come to a close. Then, in November 2001, Stuart wentmissing once more. This time he didn’t turn up after two weeks. In fact, it was a month before Stuart was found dead, having hanged himself in a hotel room in Hawaii. He had recently experienced a resurgence of old alcohol problems, which had dogged much of his life, and was facing a drink-driving charge in the USA. On 16 December, 2001, the world lost a talented singer-songwriter and guitarist who was loved by his many fans and respected throughout the music industry. Fortunately, the eight studio albums and many live recordings that Big Country produced over nearly 20 years stand as a tribute to this passionate, occasionally bitter and cynical, but always caring man.
- The Crossing (1983) – the band’s first, and for many people best, album. In 1983, their sound was startlingly fresh, with its evocative lyrics, Celtic influences and Stuart’s unique, so-called ‘bagpipe guitar’3 sound.
- Steeltown (1984) – nowhere does Stuart’s working-class background show up more than on their second album. The songs celebrate working men, be they steelworkers, soldiers or seamen. The album also includes ‘Flame of the West’, a comment on the right-wing policies of then US president Ronald Reagan, and the strong anti-war pairing of ‘Where the Rose is Sown’ and ‘Come Back to Me’. The latter is a haunting song, sung from the perspective of a woman watching her husband go off to a war from which she knows he will never return.
- The Seer (1986) – the band’s most ‘Scottish’ album, with both ‘Eiledon’ and the title track conveying an appreciation of the history and landscape of Scotland, while looking most determinedly to the future. The album also continues many of the themes of Steeltown, most notably in the anti-war sentiments of ‘Remembrance Day’ and ‘The Red Fox’. Singer Kate Bush supplied the backing vocals on the title track.
- Peace In Our Time (1988) – produced in the USA, this album has been described by Bruce as sounding more like AOR4 than like Big Country. Whatever its merits as an album, it does contain ‘Broken Heart (Thirteen Valleys’), which, in an interview inMelody Maker magazine in 1990, was described by Stuart as his favourite song.
- No Place Like Home (1991) – recorded at a difficult time for the band, with both internal politics (as described above, Mark had left and was working as a session musician) and difficulties with the record company making things awkward. It is not surprising that the album contains some of Stuart’s most cynical work, including ‘Beautiful People’, about the imperfections of the human race, ‘Republican Party Reptile’5, describing the activities of a corrupt right-wing politician, ‘We’re Not in Kansas’, about greed, selfishness and advertising, and ‘The Hostage Speaks’, suddenly topical again, commenting on the way that television portrays war and terrorism. The album does also contain one of Stuart’s most beautiful and poignant songs, ‘Ships’, which is about being able to rely on the people around you when things are at their worst.
- The Buffalo Skinners (1993) – the band’s only album without Mark’s distinctive drumming, this is a back-to-basics rock album. If No Place Like Home was cynical, then this one is angry. There are songs inspired by Stuart’s political views, including ‘The Selling of America’, about the increasing influence of large companies on governments, ‘All Go Together’, which is an apocalyptic view of man’s destruction of the environment, and the anti-vivisection song ‘Chester’s Farm’.
- Why The Long Face (1995) – a record that had the potential to be a success but that was ruined by poor promotion from the record company. The album appears to feature more love songs than previous ones, but not all of them are as sweet as they first sound…
Hey, one in a million, tell me the truth
Are you one in a million, or just some baggage from my youth?
- ‘One in a Million’
- Driving to Damascus (1999) – the band’s last album, and possibly their most musically diverse. At the time, Stuart was living in Nashville, Tennessee and was becoming heavily influenced by country music. The album features backing vocals by ex-Fairground Attraction singer Eddie Reader, and includes two songs that Stuart co-wrote with Ray Davies – ‘Somebody Else’, describing the division of belongings when a couple split-up, and ‘Devil in the Eye’, a song about the seductive power of alcohol, made particularly emotive by the alcohol-related suicide of Adamson two years after the album was released.
- Live in Cologne (1993)
- Without the Aid of a Safety Net (1994)
- Radio 1 Sessions (1994)
- BBC Live in Concert (1995)
- Eclectic (1996)
- King Biscuit Flower Hour (1997)
- Brighton Rock (1997)
- Come Up Screaming (2000)
Compilations and ‘Greatest Hits’
- Through a Big Country (1990)
- Big Country – The Collection (1994)
- Restless Natives and Rarities (1998)
- Under Cover (2001)
- Rarities II (2001)
- One in a Million (2001)
- www.bigcountry.co.uk (2001)
- Greatest 12″ Hits (2001)
- Greatest Hits – Big Country/The Skids (2002)